The Real Crisis in Policing – Collapsing Crime Rates

You have to be of a certain age to remember when certain parts of your town were off-limits. Not so long ago, wandering into Anacostia, Cabrini Green, Compton, or Washington Heights was a very dangerous proposition. Today, visit neighborhoods that were war zones in the 80’s and you’ll likely be greeted by yoga studios and niche bookstores. More than 2000 people were murdered in New York City in 1990, and that’s just the murders that were documented. In 2019, that figure was 318.

Why are cities listening to calls to slash police funding or disband and reorganize police forces? Highly visible racist abuses are the proximate cause, but something else lies beneath the surface. We built a wartime, racist police infrastructure during a crime wave forty years ago. That effort never helped, only aggravating existing social problems while terrorizing minority neighborhoods. However, as long as white voters’ memory of those days loomed over policy discussions, any suggestion of criminal justice reform was a nonstarter. Those days are over. Cities are giving serious thought to scaling back or even dismantling their police force because to a remarkable extent, white people aren’t so paranoid about crime anymore.

Voters reaching their 40’s today have no memory of the urban war zones of the 1970’s and 80’s. For them, cities are expensive playgrounds. By 2016, suburbs had equal rates of violent crime and almost equal rates of property crime compared their big urban centers. When auto accidents and workplace injuries are included in safety metrics, rural areas are now more dangerous than cities. The age of the crime-ridden city is over. Nationally, violent crime has collapsed to levels not seen in decades, and New York’s murder rate hasn’t been this low since the 1950’s. This new generation of voters has no idea why police in their communities should be walking around like itchy-triggered Robocops spoiling for a fight.

We face far more danger from criminals looting our community from boardrooms, criminals our law enforcement infrastructure refuses to address, then from street crime. Prepare for big changes as budget-constrained cities re-evaluate their investment in police.

As crime surged across the late 70’s and 80’s, Americans constructed a paramilitary police force, granting them spectacular powers and life and death with little or no oversight. A racist cultural mythology of the hero cop at war with black urban degenerates accompanied and fed this policy investment. Before we’d fully deployed this new force, crime rates began a sudden collapse around 1992, a collapse that would see crime rates of violent crime drop by almost half in just a decade. While crime rates continued to fall, we accelerated the militarization of policing, building a racist mythology of a “thin blue line” of white cops protecting civilization from barbarians. By the time we initiated the 1033 Program in 1997 to funnel surplus military equipment to local police, crime rates were already in freefall, but we didn’t stop. Police budgets have nearly tripled since the 1970’s while crime continued to decline.

Our mythology of policing is in desperate need of an update. Today, your local police wander quiet neighborhoods looking like swollen marshmallows under military flak jackets and weighted down with tactical gear. Do they need any of this? America is unique in its number of gun deaths, with the wider population experiencing 11.8 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 citizens. That rate for police is 7.6. Police officers are roughly 25% less likely to die from a gun incident than the wider public. Last year, 89 police officers died in the line of duty in the US, half of them in accidents. The same year, police in the US killed more than 1000 people.

Policing is physical and dangerous, roughly as dangerous as construction work and machine maintenance. Policing is, however, far less lethal than groundskeeping and electrical work. Policing lags far behind America’s most deadly professions, like truck driving and the surprisingly dangerous business of farming. And of course, every American profession pales in comparison to the death rates in commercial fishing and logging, nearly eight times the death rate for police. More loggers and roofers died at work last year than police officers.

New York City’s police department has nearly 40,000 members and a $95bn budget. Of the 331 New York police officers who died in the line of duty since 1950, more than 2/3 perished of 9/11 related illnesses. In the past decade, 18 New York City police officers have died in the line of duty apart from those killed by 9/11 related illnesses (95). That figure includes deaths from heart attacks and automobile accidents. That’s fewer than the number of officers who died from C19 just this year (27).

In 1990, the peak year of violence in New York’s most chaotic era, not one police officer was killed in the line of duty. Meanwhile, since 2009 with crime rates continuing to plummet, NYC police killed an average of 9 people a year.

How essential is our investment in today’s police infrastructure? Our expectation is that without them criminals would run rampant. However, police in the US solve barely 6 out of 10 murders. Two out of every three rapists, in cases that are actually reported to police, are never found. Police in the US fail to solve almost 90% of burglaries. Meanwhile our President is a party-buddy of Jeffrey Epstein, who runs a crime family, and has been accused of dozens of sexual assaults along with fraud and money laundering while serving as a hero to America’s police. Under these circumstances, Americans are justified in asking whether their investment in police is fueling more crime than it solves.

Today’s police do their most irreplaceable and physically demanding work in interdicting crime – stopping crimes in progress. Your local police may not have a sterling record of solving crimes which already occurred, but they are the folks you count on to stop criminals, especially violent criminals, in the act. They also address, and cope with the emotional aftermath of the grisliest scenes of death and misfortune that play out in our communities. We need police. We just may need them organized and deployed differently. Police themselves might benefit from a reorganization. In a grim portrait of the reality of modern police work, far more police die from suicide than from line of duty incidents. Our approach to policing is not just killing our citizens, it is killing our officers.

Why has America seen a collapse in crime rates since the 1980’s? Lots of explanations get thrown around, from Rudy Giuliani’s infamous “stop and frisk” to cell phones and demographics, but none of them correlate cleanly with this shift. More importantly, none of these factors explain the way crime rates declined uniformly across the entire developed world at the same time, even as a large new population of young people reached peak crime age in the late 90’s.

So far, there’s only one explanation of our collapse in criminal activity that consistently holds up to scrutiny, the steep, sudden decline in lead exposure that began in the mid-70’s as the developed world moved away from leaded fuels. Average blood-lead levels have declined almost 90% since the 70’s, eliminating a toxin known to contribute to cognitive impairment, violent behavior and various degenerative illnesses. That tie between lead levels and criminal behavior has grown stronger with recent studies.

Chances are, the expensive, militarized police patrolling neighborhoods today were bulked up to fight a problem they were never going to be able to address. Over the past half-century, police have done less to contain crime in America than those pesky environmentalists.

As a slogan, “Defund Police” is a confusing and misleading, creating the impression that activists intend to strangle police departments with budget cuts rather than initiate real reforms. We will always need police in some form or another. However, recent efforts to dismantle corrupt police forces have shown promise. Camden gets particular notice for its success in rooting out the structural problems in a police force that probably caused as much crime as they prevented. Camden fired their whole force, rebuilding the organization from the ground up with greater emphasis on community engagement and assistance. Results so far have been positive.

Police departments loaded down with military equipment, patrolling our cities like an occupying army in a warzone, are contributing to more crime than they solve. They are a destabilizing force trained and emotionally primed to address problems we don’t have with methods that create unnecessary harm. It’s not personal. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the personal qualities of my friends or family members in the force. In the same vein, our problems with a dysfunctional police infrastructure won’t be solved by hiring nicer people. We have a structural problem which must be addressed at a policy level. With an old crimewave finally receding from our collective imagination, we may finally have the public will to build a smarter, more effective police force. And we may have environmentalists to thank for that.

31 Comments

  1. So unrelated to this topic, but then again, maybe not.
    The mad king just tweeted batshitness of the highest order.
    Assuming Twitter does not take it down (they have already flagged it as manipulated media).

    I urge all to watch it, and then do whatever makes sense. Giggle, cry, rage, whatever.

    Yet you folks seem to believe that relying on a rigged election is the only way to save the democratic world.

  2. Hi Chris, can you post a link to the crime rate graph for this article? I see it on the home page but it is cut off at the bottom. As a baby boomer, I grew up in Chicago during the 70’s and I am curious to know more about crime rates over time.

    Richard J. Daley’s (mayor of Chicago during the 60’s – 70’s) most famous quote: “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”

  3. Racial injustice is over four hundred years old. The pandemic, though very serious, is a mere four months, has realized trillions of dollars in intervention, shut down the entire world, and has marshaled the entire resources of our government (in spite of potus).

    I agree with WX. Now is the time For this tragic, immoral situation to take precedence.

    This will, of necessity, involve police reform. Substantial reform. We had a real opportunity during the Obama tenure through the Policing Reform Act to make a serious commitment to change. Instead, America elected a president whose personal bigotry exacerbated rather than supported continuation of this initiative. The WSJ looks back at “what could have been”.

    https://apple.news/AOUusaTtOQlKaoL3zqrbJmA

  4. Freakonomics guys state directly in their introduction that much of what Levitt studied wasn’t accepted in his economics department as valid. Of course this means he’s a free, out-of-the-box thinker against an turgid bureaucracy that suppresses diversity of beliefs rather than someone who produces invalid or scientifically suspect literature. The introduction literally states that his work was largely regarded at most as a curiosity by various departments until he met up with Dubner, a writer and non-scientist, who loved the interesting story possibilities and paired up with Levitt to tell them so that they”d be accessible to the masses. Again my source here is the introduction to the text itself, in their own words.

    From a larger critical thinking perspective, pretty much every section of the original Freakonomics book suffers from the correlation doesn’t equal causation issue mixed with JAQing off (“Just asking questions”). The two partners find interesting correlations and then spitball together stories that specially fit the correlations into a narrative, and then write their little pop sci book chapter and move on to the next.

    The results may not be all wrong. I have never bothered to look into every assertion made in the original book. But most of the more memorable assertions, such as the abortion = crime reduction, have been rejected by any other researcher that’s looked into it. Again, Levitt and Dubner credit that to the mainstream not wanting to look a hard truth in the face rather than the fact that a whole lot of social changes between 1970 and 1990 could have contributed.

    On the other hand I was compelled by their argument against Broken Windows Theory, that in the end was more like a marketing initiative by the chief of police to get NYC to hire more cops, proven when he took a job in California and skipped the Broken Windows step because his fame already did the marketing, and went straight to hiring more cops. In the broader theme that Dubner and Levitt have about “motivations”, they point to how economics often create narratives to describe human motivations rather than use human motivations to create narratives, but either way narratives themselves are only a representation of truth and not the facts themselves. Freakonomics is fun and creative thinking, but not scientific.

  5. I’m always a few posts late but I loved your comparison of NWA’s Fuk da police and Steve Earl’s Copperhead Road. When I was a wee kid I loved to watch the Dukes of Hazzard. As a recent immigrant I had no idea what that flag on the rooftop meant, and as a little kid all I wanted to see were the awesome car chases. It was only when I was older that I even became aware of the story: Uncle Jesse made moonshine and the Dukes needed a fast car to evade the police when making their hooch deliveries. But as long as they were white, their drug dealing ways could be dismissed as just some good ole boys, never meanin’ no harm.

    Here’s a riddle. Q: what’s the difference between the Dukes of Hazzard and the first season of The Wire? A: One is a story of a cunning drug kingpin(1) who uses his nephew(s) (2) to distribute his product, employing tactics like sending scantily-clad honeypots (3) to recruit moles (4) within the police, while the cops, working within an ethically compromised, morally ambiguous department, nevertheless risk life and limb (5) to bring the drug dealers to justice and keep their product from ruining their community. And the other one’s a show on HBO…

    For people who are not as extreme fans of Dukes of Hazzard as I was:
    1: Uncle Jesse
    2: Bo and Luke Duke
    3: Daisy Duke
    4: Enos
    5: How many times did you see Boss Hogg or Roscoe P. Coltrane in the hospital or wearing a cast?

      1. “Never really understood all the noise about “law and order” from white people since I grew up in a white culture that completely disdained the law in nearly every form.”

        “Masks and lockdowns are criminal invasions of my rights by the oppressive nanny state! Now you protestors stay inside and do what Me. Policeman tells you or else you deserve to be extrajudicially executed!”

      2. Like Newtonian forces, most political hypocrisies come in pairs, equal and opposite. I support the protests as much as anyone else, but the double standard on which public gatherings are okay is incredible.

        I’ve not seen the Dukes of Hazzard, but there is a line in The Wire about how the police only get involved when bodies start dropping. Interesting comparison though

      3. “I support the protests as much as anyone else, but the double standard on which public gatherings are okay is incredible.”

        I’m not clear who you’re talking about here but I will respond to the formation it can be interpreted in that this hypocrisy affects both sides.

        Definitely the issue of breaking social distancing is a debate of some nuance in the left, where quite a few BIPOC have pointed out that they have never been able to observe social distancing in the first place, being often in lower income service jobs and forced to go to work often without PPE and then may survive the pandemic only to be choked to death by a cop, and for whom also suffer disproportionately fatal effects from COVID-19 infections due to long term systemic negligence to their health care. All other things being equal, they’re fighting for their very lives and there is nothing hypocritical about it. But the thousands (millions?) of privileged white people joining them may be spreading COVID-19 amongst the participants and there the debate has more nuance: how important is physical demonstration versus doing the work in other venues?

        On the right it is solely hypocrisy. If telling people to wear masks is and stay home is against human rights, then so is telling them they can’t demonstrate. These sides are not equally as hypocritical. The right wing is more hypocritical, and the hypocrisy points directly to the belief that their individual ability to go get a haircut is more important to society than the very life of a black man. They are wrong. A black man’s life is more important than their haircut.

      4. Jon-
        Call me biased, but I don’t think the protests are hypocritical. The protesters aren’t denying the risks of catching Covid. They’re merely saying that this movement is more important and that they’re willing to take that risk. And, if you believe in the protests, then I think they’re right: protests and revolutions don’t start on a convenient schedule. They start when they start. And for that matter, they aren’t being “allowed” to march by the authorities, who are firing tear gas, imposing curfews, and posting national guard members to try to get the protesters to disperse (albeit not for Covid reasons).

        In contrast, conservatives are going to pool parties and tattoo parlors. There is no desperate need to get your tattoo done this week, and pools will still be around in a few months. Those things *can* be scheduled, and it’s pretty despicable when people elevate such nonessential activities to being more important than containing this virus.

        So I guess it boils down to whether you consider protests to stop police killings as more or less important than stopping covid. For me, it goes BLM > covid >> haircuts and pool parties. If you believe in the same order of priorities, then there’s nothing hypocritical about going outside and protesting while telling others to defer their haircuts for another month.

      5. Aaron-
        There was a great meme about how when bakeries refused to bake cakes for gay weddings, conservatives talked about business owners’ right to run their business as they see fit. Now, when bakeries refuse service to anyone who doesn’t wear a mask inside their store, they cry that their civil rights are being broken, to hell with their rights as business owners!

      6. There are a few things. As Aaron hinted at, the lockdown was most supported by white collar types for whom remote work was an option, whereas anyone with a shitty but nonessential job was thrown under the bus. I see that as class, not race, but I suspect we’d just talk past each other on that point.
        I have no stats to back this second observation up, but my impression is that being “pro-lockdown”, statistically speaking, serves as a predictor of your party and overall politics, but as a much weaker predictor of whether or not you actually refrained from visiting friends and family members in the month of April.
        Mainly I was talking about the thing you responded to. Look at the post on this blog from 5/2. It refers to protests as an act of collective suicide. Now, the protesters this month are younger and have masks, but masks are a mitigatory factor; they don’t enable you to gather in mass safely. If the anti-lockdown protests were suicide, or “evolution at work”, than surely the much denser BLM protests count as murdering your elder family members. Please note, I’m not singling out our host here; I use this example only because it is both at-hand, and representative. In particular, similar attitudes on both sets of protests came from our public health “authorities”.
        FWIW, I rank police brutality > C19 > discretionary spending. While I personally could withstand lockdown for months, I don’t think it’s good for most people. So my problem isn’t the protests; it’s the change in “the facts”.

      7. “I see that as class, not race, but I suspect we’d just talk past each other on that point.”

        The question of how much class in America is structured around race is basically the prevailing theme of Chris Ladd’s work, as I see it.

        “my impression is that being “pro-lockdown”, statistically speaking, serves as a predictor of your party and overall politics, but as a much weaker predictor of whether or not you actually refrained from visiting friends and family members in the month of April.”

        I kind of agree with you here, but with nuance:

        Nobody was pro-lockdown except for those people who really misunderstood what the lockdown was about. The lockdown wasn’t the solution. The lockdown was to keep ICUs from being overwhelmed while state governments developed solutions. As Chris has consistently written, the lockdown came from a failure of our federal government to execute solutions. Calling people pro-lockdown is a little like calling pro-choice people pro-abortion. They don’t want abortions to happen, they just disagree with preventing them for religious reasons.

        Just as “just wash your hands” has shifted to “stay home”, now things are “Just wear a mask and avoid crowds inside.” In that transition there’ll be many people who clung to the original statement, others that adapted quickly, and many misunderstandings from various sides. As a whole I don’t think ‘pro-lockdown’ is a real political stance.

        But you are right about various commitment to that lockdown. I have a friend who keeps posting on FB about how much the lockdown is cramping his lifestyle and how hard he’s having making it through, but he hasn’t really changed any behavior. The first week of lockdown he threw a barbeque. Now he’s out protesting every day. The man cannot be contained inside and it would be a “fine, just wear a mask” issue except that he is outspoken about the importance of the lockdown that he’s not even committed to. So we see eye to eye there.

        “Look at the post on this blog from 5/2. It refers to protests as an act of collective suicide.”

        I can’t speak for Chris but my interpretation is that the anti-lockdown protestors are protesting for their right to spread COVID-19 widely and get sick and die, which would be meaningfully different from protestors calling for the right to not be extrajudicially executed in public streets or thrown into prison for the crime of walking around being black.

      8. “As a whole I don’t think ‘pro-lockdown’ is a real political stance.”

        I’m torn between being relieved that you think this, and feeling that this is both obviously true but at the same time misleading (sorry for that clunky phrasing). On one hand, yes. We needed to slow way down for a month or two in the face of a disease that we initially thought would kill 1/50 people, while we developed practices that would balance the need for a slow rate of infection with the need to return to normal life (both economically and socially). But staying locked down in the hopes a vaccine would appear would have been a gamble at best and unrealistic at worst. So, I’m not throwing any stones at the states which have reopened.

        On the other hand, your phrasing seems like a trick. Besides abortion, one could make similar statements about police militarization, censorship, surveillance, prison, or even a minor/personal inconvenience like having a daily commute of over an hour each way. There are trade-offs. If you think that the benefits of X outweigh the costs and opportunity costs, then you are pro-X. It is an option on the table for you. If you think the costs outweigh the benefits you’re anti-X. You can also be undecided. The alternative terminology would be to categorize people as “neutral”, “against”, or undecided, but I dunno that feels confusing.

  6. Back to the topic of police; I totally agree that “defend” isn’t the right word here (even if Trump and his authoritarian enablers weren’t eagerly pouncing on it). Reform and rethink are the approaches we need.

    Suggestions recycled from another forum:

    Police reforms I’d like to see

    1) No more no-knock raids, especially if you’re going to have castle doctrine laws. Here in Houston we’re still waiting for justice to be done for the infamous Harding St raid, where a bad cop lied to get a warrant, and 2 innocent people and their dog died in the shootout. Honestly I’m shocked that this doesn’t happen more often.

    2) Civil forfeiture reform- if charges are dropped, not filed in a timely matter (we can debate how long that should be), or the accused is acquitted, the cops have to give back the confiscated stuff. Immediately. No excuses, no arguments, no red tape.

    3) Residency requirements: I don’t like the idea of dictating where someone has to live to hold a job, but you can offer incentives for police officers who live in the neighborhoods they patrol. Major, hard to turn down incentives, such as house down payments or student loan forgiveness.

    4) Qualified immunity- the interpretations of that settled down in crazy town. This needs a major rethink.

    5) Oversight- The State AG’s Office needs a new division to handle any complaints about police misconduct. Kick this upstairs away from conflicts of interest immediately. Alternatively, establish a civilian review board with elected seats.

    6) Hiring standards: Raise the standards, but also raise the pay. If you want the best people, you have to pay them what they are worth. That’s the biggest reason why I’m not on board with these defund police demands. Stop buying military surplus and pay for better people instead

    7) There needs to be a database of the bad cops who get fired for being bad, and they need to be blacklisted from future law enforcement employment. We also need a database on police use of force, justified or not.

  7. When I started reading this I was wondering if lead poisoning would be mentioned (I’m a biologist after all), and sure enough it is. The man who played a major role in raising the alarm and getting some of the worst offending uses of lead banned deserves mention in this discussion:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clair_Cameron_Patterson

    It’s a damn shame that they don’t give out Nobel prizes posthumously, because there was some who deserved a tandem Peace-Chemistry Prize. He wasn’t even initially investigating lead poisoning; his initial task was trying to measure the age of the Earth and the solar system. I see him as a fine role model of scientific integrity: he got an unexpected result, he followed through on it, and he dared to follow the data into inconvenient and uncomfortable places. Think of how many lives were saved/improved because of his work.

    It’s also noteworthy that Freddie Gray was documented as a childhood victim of severe lead poisoning.

    1. Also, another possible explanation for collapsing crime rates, and one that is not mutually exclusive with the lead-reduction theory, is generational replacement. The rise in crime of the late 60s, 70s, and 80s was initiated by Boomers and picked up by Xers. Then as Boomers started to age out of the most crime prone age brackets, Xers slowly began to reverse the trend, and that reversal picked up speed as Millennials aged in the most crime prone age brackets. This is consistent with the collapsing rates of many other social pathologies, including teen pregnancy and substance abuse. Simply put, for a complex interplay of reasons, Millies have by and large choosing to behave better than the next two older generations.

      1. Could somebody elaborate or post a link concerning those points? I thought the Levitt study accounted for abortion being legal earlier in some states than in others.

        Very late I know but @Aaron I appreciated that post you linked to about Tuxedo Park and the Gilded Age.

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